It was car-free Sunday yesterday, our eleventh in Brussels.
The first time, we knew nothing about it so we put our kids in the car and drove them to the swimming pool. Back then we were forever on a shark-like drive to be constantly in motion: it seemed to be central to life with two tiny people. They were 2 and 4, a barely controlled explosion of desires and emotions, everything lived and felt intensely. Forever in need of amusement or occupation, we their serfs/butlers/keepers took them to parks and museums, tiny trains and zoos and soft play warehouses on industrial estates. I spent half my life, it felt like, on moulded plastic chairs toying with a cup of terrible coffee in the strip lit, stale fat-scented play areas of Quick restaurants in out of town shopping centres, wondering if the sticky residue on the table was juice or something much worse.
That first Sunday, after a few scolding headlight flashes and a quick burst of Google, we got the message. We’ve known the next ten have been coming. The weather is almost always good - I don’t know quite how they swing that - and we’ve cycled and roller bladed and walked and run, gone to local knees-ups and city ones. We’ve queued for ice creams, petted police horses and collected conkers. I mention this because I’m drowning in nostalgia at the moment: the kind of nostalgia that physically hurts, not the soft-focus, delightful kind. This variety aches until it’s almost intolerable. I usually love this time of year; I land in September with relief, a sense of purpose and a bustle of work after summer rootlessness but this year the work hasn’t come and it seems to have left me open to this weird, achy sense of loss.
Of course our children don’t want to walk or run or roller blade with us any more, so I went for a walk with my husband and the dog on Sunday morning instead. The weather was good, as usual, after a fortnight of relentless rain and everyone was out. We crossed paths with gangs of death-wish skateboard kids, wobbly scootering toddlers, sedate cycling pensioner couples and every shape, size and colour of family on every possible variant of non-mechanised wheels. A winded “oof” of feelings hit me in the stomach on the Chaussée de Waterloo and brought me to a halt. “We’ve been here so long!” I said to my husband, weighing all those years, all the Quick play areas and slow trails around the parks. He agreed. We have. Apart from our respective birthplaces, this is the city we've lived in the longest, by far. It will be here that the boys associate with their childhood, these dozy streets full of lost cat posters, the Parc du Caca, ice cream from Zizi and spectacular Art Nouveau details displayed without fanfare above grubby corner shops.
I actually love having teenagers. I’ve loved every developmental hop, skip and jump. They can make a decent cup of tea and an edible bowl of pasta and the darker and twistier a conversation I can have with them, the better. We laugh together, often and I take a basic farmer’s satisfaction in watching them grow and thrive. But in the last few months, I’ve started, at last, to feel the wrench other parents describe as they fold away the tiny socks and hats. Because they don’t want to spend time with us any more, at least not like this and I miss them. It’s universal; it’s normal. “They’ll come back,” older and wiser people say, and as long as I don’t fuck up too badly, I’m sure they’re right.
But it won’t be how it was: nothing could ever be as intense as those early years. The boys were all-consuming and with each year, they are less so: I think about them as much as ever, but they don’t take possession of me physically now. My body remembers it all: the satisfying heft of a plump baby on your hip or a tantrumming, ironing board rigid toddler to be wedged into a car seat or carried up to bed. How F used to like to pull idly at the loose skin on my elbows. Laces tied, noses blown, pants pulled up and the thoughtless, instinctive sharing of food and space. My hand perpetually solicited and given for holding, for carefully selected stones, soggy tissues and discarded biscuit wrappers (or sick. Sometimes sick. I’m not so nostalgic for that). Hours that felt like days. The endless, spooling, maddening, enchanting flow of talk. Brightly coloured plastic in my pockets and under my feet and the lyrics to the credits to awful TV shows lodged in my brain. All the detritus of a childhood, of a parenthood, feels oddly precious at this moment, as it slows to trickle (it's just chargers and washing now, mainly).
I’ll get some work in eventually (I hope) and I’ll stop mooning around, nostalgic for Bakugans and paying €4 to watch a child scream through a 2-minute ride on a migraine-inducing technicolour carousel. No one in their right mind could or should be lost in a fog of exquisitely painful elegiac nostalgia for a foot and urine scented soft play area or Jay Jay Le Petit Avion and I’m sure my right mind is around here, somewhere.
Partly I think my nostalgia is preemptive: it’s for Brussels. We’re not leaving, not yet. We have no concrete plans. We speculate, throw ideas in the air, see where they land, then back away from them for now. It’s just that I’m beginning to think we might be heading towards done. Eventually I want more hens and less saxophone free jazz in my life and my husband wants space and peace. One day, perhaps not until the boys leave, we’ll do it. But this will forever be the place they grew up and it was pretty great, most of the time.
The city was on best behaviour on Sunday, of course. There was a lunatic folklore event on the Grand Place with prize winning moustaches and a woman dressed up as a horse and the man who wheels a portable Manneken Pis around, squirting unwary tourists.
The flea market was packed and sunny and one of the stallholders was wearing a rakish fur stole.
There were made to order Magnums with smoked dark chocolate and salted caramel at Pierre Marcolini and some excellent dogs on the terraces of the Sablon. Even the trams were working, mostly.
It has rained pretty much ever since, but I'm trying to hold onto that sense of whatever it is I'm feeling - gratitude perhaps? - towards this city. Because, it's increasingly apparent, we won't Always Have Brussels.
Flicking through Le Soir, the Belgian paper, on the lookout for some hidden nugget of Belgiania that I can fashion into a hilarious/fascinating pitch or spurious Belgian life philosophy to repackage for coffee table consumption à la hygge/ikigai, I note the following:
- 5 hideous grisly and depressing murders (yes all murder is bad but these ones were particularly dreadful)
- several sinkholes
- Ghastly racist ministers Theo Francken and Jan Jambon being themselves
- "7 out of 10 Belgians in favour of euthanasia for people who are 'tired of life'"
I am not sure Belgium is ready for its hygge moment. 2. The Naming of the Pekins
The chicks have now survived 6 weeks and doubled in size and sass, so I think I can finally give them names. The one on my shoulder on the last post is slightly shyer, lighter and paler. Her friend is fearless and fat and darker and has taken to chasing away the pigeons and crows that have the effrontery to try and eat her food. Here they both are up to no good:
3. Hou je klaar en bakken maar
Dutch class starts again next week and I have been preparing by watching THE FLANDERS BAKE OFF. Characteristics of the Flanders Bake Off:
- Host is a single fat jolly bloke who tells a lot of jokes. I like him.
- Judges: one rather po-faced pâtissier who is very strict and Regula Ysewyn who is a vision of vintage splendour, but also rather strict.
- Contestants: the usual mix. Quite blokey. Their older lady has lasted longer than the British one. There is a nice Columbian man who sometimes wears a hat. There is also one young woman whose every second phrase is in English and I find it disproportionately annoying.
- Key phrases:
"spannend" = tense, used by all candidates all the time, esp during the spektakelstuk.
"ik ben benieuwd" = I am curious, used by judges when contestants suggest some outlandish flavour or technique, basically the equivalent of that stare Paul Hollywood does.
"natte onderkant" = soggy bottom
I am wondering how to work these into Dutch class.
4. Home Baking to Prove to Myself I Am Not A Deadbeat: A Journal of Failure, Fatness and Diminishing Returns
Make a 29 minute chocolate cake (Twitter rec).
Looks pretty good. Tastes great. Children come home.
E: Look! I made a chocolate cake.
F (humouring voice): That's nice! Eats a small slice then quietly goes and gets some biscuits out of the cupboard.
L: I'm not hungry Eats crisps for rest of day. I eat the rest of the cake.
Make Mary Berry's fast jam buns.
"I asked a 12-year-old girl to try this recipe for me," says MB, who doesn't give a shit about my attempts to make myself feel less of a deadbeat. "She had no problems and thoroughly enjoyed herself." Mine come out slightly too salty and quite unattractive and are nothing like the jam buns of my childhood.
Children come home.
E: There's these ... jam things?
F: Just goes silently straight to the biscuit cupboard
L: Ooh! Eats one. Never mentions again. Spouse eats one. Never mentions again. I eat 4 more - they are edible when warmed - then give the rest to the birds. Day 3
Make chocolate chip Chelsea buns (because my family are awful and hate spice and dried fruit).
Children come home.
E: I made some of those chocolate bun things?
F: Oh, right. Eats one, eats peanuts for remainder of day
L: I'm not hungry Later
L: Are there any biscuits?
E: There are these chocolate chip buns I made!
L: Not those I freeze the buns, sadly. Day 4 (today)
I made cinnamon buns which no one likes but me. Fuck everything.
No, there is no pearl sugar or glaze or icing on the top because I PREFER THEM WITHOUT and they are MY BUNS.
I set myself a target of no despair before midday and have failed at it today BUT I have updated the reading page for July. July was long ago so the descriptions are ... brief?
Everything is shit. I mean, it isn't, probably but it feels like that today. And yesterday. And most of last week. What? Also, in the wider world, it is clearly shit, so actually, let's stick with the initial statement.
Ingratitude Journal (with apologies/thanks to Ganching who did it first)
Faced with the Reichenbach Falls of translation, I am doing nothing more productive than staring at the grey sky (I'm fine with grey sky, I welcome it, that is not part of the shitness) and occasionally quietly whispering "I hate everyone" and "fuck everything".
Family Life I will not go further, much as I might wish to because Family Life Omertà must be maintained except when Insta-messaging one's best friend from the lavatory in the dead of night whilst cry-laugh-crying.
Just spoilered myself for Fake or Fortune - the thought of which is the only thing keeping me going many days - because of following my fantasy husband Philip Mould on Twitter (no regrets though).
Quoted very punchily for a couple of jobs on my spouse's advice and as a result have no work or money (I still think he was right but I have €8 in my bank account before my (holiday) credit card bill goes through). I genuinely can't quite see how to earn a living at the moment. I can't be entirely unskilled, but my skills such as they are are not highly valued in monetary terms in 2017.
Regarding the above, I have resolved to pitch more, but what this means concretely is a momentary feeling of achievement followed by hours of feeling shit, when my tentative pitch ("here is something you might possibly, conceivably, be interested in?") is met with a big fat horrified no ("why are you offering us the decomposing corpse of a subway rat, what is wrong with you, you fucking halfwit, also we covered decomposing rat corpses frequently this year, why the fuck didn't you do your research", this is how it feels to me anyway). This is ... emotionally challenging. I will persist. I have it in mind to try and be more male about work stuff.
Quite fat after Yorkshire holiday of Tunnocks Teacakes, gin and crisps so have Tight Trouser Gloom/Rage.
I note also, that on closer examination these trousers are covered in weird brownish green stains. Bird shit? Yorkshire gunk?
It's the time of the year where everything bites me so I'm scratching like a flea-ridden dog.
My scrubby old hen has decided to make it her life's mission to kill my new hens. Every time I think things have calmed down, there's a flurry of screeching and feathers and I have to run outside and make peace with mealworms and cardboard boxes.
Ok, this is only one of them, but I can't get a decent pic of the pair of them together and the other one is squeakier and faster. I love them.
As you can see, I have nothing funny or interesting to say which is why I have stayed away. If that changes, I will be sure to let you know. I will probably let you know if things continue to be shit too.